Everyday Anger Brought Down Malaysia’s Government

Corruption and incompetence pushed Malaysians to end decades of one-party rule.

By Betsy Joles, a journalist in Pakistan.
Former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate Mahathir Mohamad celebrates in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on May 10. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate Mahathir Mohamad celebrates in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on May 10. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia  — At a rally on the southern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur Wednesday night, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad declared victory in Malaysia’s elections, a result confirmed the next morning. Mahathir’s victory brought an end to the six-decade dominance of the Barisan Nasional (BN), a coalition of parties led by the United Malays National Organization — a group that Mahathir himself once headed.

Mahathir was celebrating in the capital, but his victory was forged in the countryside, where the United Malays National Organization has long had a powerful grip on rural voters, especially ethnic Malays, maintained through a decades-long web of favors, benefits, subsidies, and political appointments. But trust in that system has frayed thanks both to mismanagement at the top and incompetence at the bottom, leaving Malaysia’s rural poor turning away from the party they’d helped keep in power for decades.

Sophie Lemière, an expert on Malaysian politics at Harvard, says that the victory of the new opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, reveals that voters have noticed the negative trickle-down effects of venal government policies. “The level of tolerance for corruption has always been very high in Malaysia,” she says. “But what was accepted and tolerated before is no longer accepted and tolerated.”

At the top, it’s the scandal surrounding the government-owned development company 1Malaysia Development Berhad that damaged former Prime Minister Najib Razak the most. Amid a tangled mess of corruption, nearly $700 million originally intended for national development purposes ended up, his accusers say, in Najib’s pockets.

1MDB started out as the Terengganu Investment Authority, a provincial fund aiming to promote economic growth and manage oil revenues in Malaysia’s north. 1MDB became a federal fund in 2009, promoted by Najib as a way to encourage foreign investment and promote development. But the fund quickly drew criticism by board members as domestic development took a backseat to overseas transactions and alleged feathering of the nests of Malaysia’s political elite. The fund built up a multibillion-dollar debt as Najib’s management of the country’s finances came under investigation by the Malaysian government.

At the grassroots, though, everyday incompetence and graft may have taken a greater toll on the BN vote than high-level corruption. For Nazrin Idham Razali, 28, a win for the opposition isn’t just a change in regime. He calls it a reformation — a total reconfiguration of the system to make sure government benefits reach the people. Razali has been a member of the youth arm of Pakatan Harapan since he was 18, and he says he’s seen the damaging effects of the ruling party’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) policy on his lower-class neighborhood outside Kuala Lumpur.

The 6 percent GST, introduced by Najib in 2015, was supposed to simplify the system and enhance revenues, but it has been wildly unpopular. Branded as a form of government assistance, Razali says, GST requires people to choose between things as simple as gas and food, because, “They didn’t give any subsidies to the people.” Instead, Razali says he’s only seen the costs of living in the city rise and felt the growing disconnect between those in power and the public they represent. “They don’t know, they don’t care,” he says. “They don’t feel the struggle.”

As a result, GST became a major tipping point this election, especially for rural and lower-class voters normally on the receiving end of government assistance. Resistance to GST helped stir discontent and push the vote in Pakatan Harapan’s favor. Mahathir very prominently promised to abolish the system and replace it with a sales tax. “It’s not a rollback. It’s a cancellation,” Mahathir said at a press conference in Petaling Jaya on Thursday.

The swing away from BN was also prominent in states such as Johor in southern Malaysia, where large parts of the countryside are controlled by the Federal Land Development Authority, a government agency that handles the resettlement and development of state land. Najib’s mismanagement of such land created discontent among smallholders in the palm oil industry and the rural poor, who’d been left in the lurch by failed investment plans, bringing them into the opposition fold. The programs’ investments have been dogged by controversy and accusations of kickbacks, while settlers in those areas struggle to pay off the debt accrued from government loans to maintain lands controlled by the development authority.

The combination of mismanagement at the bottom and abuse at the top fueled the opposition’s gains. Mahathir predicted there would be a “Malay tsunami” this election — a movement by ethnic Malays in these voter pools disenchanted by BN’s policies. But Lemière says this election’s outcome transcended ethnic identity and became a “rakyat tsunami” — a people’s tsunami — with citizens realizing their hard-earned tax contributions might be used to fuel future corruption.

The BN did its best to remind Malay voters of where their interests supposedly lay. Its campaign rhetoric focused on Malay identity, and on the BN party’s role as a protector of bumiputera rights — constitutional privileges effectively reserved for Muslim Malays and indigenous peoples. Gerrymandering in the countryside intensified as the BN attempted to create Malay-dominated voting pools and confine minority voters to limited constituencies.

That strategy backfired at the national level in rural Malay-majority states, where redelineation only worsened rural discontent. Shahrul Saari, deputy chairman of the election monitoring group Bersih 2.0, says that states such as southern Johor that were the focus for BN gerrymandering policies came out in support of the opposition instead. “The states they thought were their safety deposit box turned against them.”

The government’s gerrymandering efforts were intended to isolate and marginalize opposition voters. Changes in voting trends played out not only among rural Malays, but also among unlikely swing voters like civil servants, who had been strongly bound to the status quo in previous elections. Fahmi Fadzli, the opposition candidate in southwestern Kuala Lumpur, saw this clearly when, he says, 8,000 police voters were packed into his constituency and 5,000 registered opposition voters were relocated to another district. “Despite all of that, we still won,” he says.

The Malay Muslim vote was a major focus this election as Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, the country’s Islamist party, ran on a third ticket for the first time in 60 years. The party was predicted to create a swing vote and clinched a majority in Kelantan, one state BN had banked strongly on winning by saying a vote for the opposition was a vote against Islam. Yet for Muslim voters in most of the country, corruption was a bigger issue than faith in the end.

Speaking at a campaign rally in the northern state of Terengganu during the first week of May, Hashim bin Osman said supporting Parti Islam Se-Malaysia was a vote for stronger Islamic influence in government. But, as a Malaysian, he said his first priority is a clean and transparent use of government funds. For him, that means moving away from BN’s policies: “People already got fed up. After 60 years, they are still facing the same problems.”

But Razali, of Malay-Chinese descent, says his personal frustration with the system isn’t bound by religion or ethnicity. Thanks to his Malay heritage, Razali has constitutional access to bumiputera rights, but said he feels privileges are bound by socioeconomic factors that are dependent on transparent and fair government policies. “Yes, we are bumiputeras,” he says. “But which bumiputeras will benefit the most?”

That’s the consensus, not just among Malays but all Malaysians fed up with politicians who ignore the needs of the people. Lemière says this kind of victory isn’t only a victory against corruption, but also represents a wider success for the future of the country’s politics. “It shows a new level of political awareness in Malaysia. And it shows that the political culture in Malaysia is changing,” she says. “This country might be on the true path to democracy for the first time in history.”

Betsy Joles is a journalist in Pakistan. Twitter: @BetsyJoles